The tech community and startup culture has a long, widely-recognized history of romanticizing a cult-like approach for building successful companies. Popular tech media publications like Wired have published pieces on the topic: You Should Run Your Startup Like a Cult. Here’s How, Inc.‘s The Cult-Like Cultures of Amazing Startups, Forbes Are Successful Companies The New Cults?, Fast Company‘s Facebook VP’s Leaked 2016 Memo Betrays Cult-like Obsession With Growth, and Fortune‘s Fired Google Engineer: Tech Company Is ‘Like a Cult’. It goes without saying that the rapid rise and influence of technology companies have changed nearly every facet of the world as we know it. Living and working within Silicon Valley’s tech ecosystem, I see firsthand how the ubiquitous mantra “our mission is to change the world” permeates organizations. Have we lost sight of the line between cult and ‘cult-like’? Is the over-use of the cult-inspired phrase “drinking the kool-aid” in tech pop culture a sign we have become numb to the real differences that exist between cults and startups?
Many years ago I had the privilege of completing coursework taught by renowned forensic psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer, a world expert on brainwashing, cults and psychopathy. In her long career, she investigated and testified about techniques used by North Koreans against American soldiers in wartime, the Symbionese Liberation Army‘s influence over the kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, David Koresh in Waco with Branch Davidians, and countless other criminal cases examining psychopathy, cults, and serial killers. Dr. Singer helped several people leave the San Francisco-based religious group Peoples Temple before 900 of the members committed mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978 by drinking kool-aid flavored cyanide. Even in her late 70’s, Dr. Singer remained a formidable speaker and made a deep, long-lasting impression on me about the irresistible charisma of cult leaders, and the lure they had over their members. I’ve outlined the key principles she taught as fundamental to a cult’s ability to successfully wield power over others.
Read through the following 15 tactics and ask yourself, can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup?
- Complete, nearly unquestioned trust is bestowed to the leadership. Doubt and dissent are highly discouraged and may be met with uniquely tailored forms of punishment.
- Leaders are given prophet-like power within the group, and embraced as special, visionary, ‘highly gifted’ individuals with unusual connections to a critical higher purpose or higher power.
- Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.
- The group is the only ‘true’ belief system, and members are encouraged to think of themselves as elite and enlightened for their involvement in the group’s membership
- ‘Us against them’ mentality is encouraged as a means to unify the group, and reinforce the group’s mission against outside thought or influence. Extreme efforts to protect and shield the group from outside threats are manifested by expecting members to devote inordinate amounts of time to group-related activities, including recruiting.
- Keep members unaware of what is going on and how they are being changed a step at a time. Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group. The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to ‘invest’ in the group, or make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.
- Total control of members’ thoughts, feelings and actions through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of affiliation with the group’s special purpose. Members are rewarded for their expressions of loyalty, and are made to fear negative consequences for expressing autonomy of thought.
- Members are encouraged to believe that they will experience deep loss (of love, financial opportunity, respect from a revered community) or danger should they lose their group affiliation.
- Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in group members. This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members. The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
- This facilitates further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.
- Showering great attention, , gifts of affirmation and love to a person in the group (especially newcomers) by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
- Threats of loss of love and severing of meaningful in-group relationships are used to maintain loyalty.
- Special knowledge and instructions comes from the empowered leader who is thought to have rare gift for predicting the future. This leader then instructs the members how to carry out plans according to this vision.
- The special knowledge may be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of revered content from past adored thought leaders and their teachings.
- Control of a person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time. Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
- Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, induced states of physical taxation through sweat lodge sessions, fasting, hard labor.
- The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around a system of ‘special knowledge’.
- Salvation from the judgment of a higher power is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its special knowledge.
- The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
- There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion, increased power and acceptance by the group.
- If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.
- Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
- Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.
- Those who do not tightly align with group policies are shunned and/or expelled, and remaining members are encouraged to see their exit as a personal failure and/or irreversible damnation.
- Control of gender roles and definitions are maintained by the group’s power hierarchy to maintain rank and order.
- Gender differences may be used for sexual exploitation of those with less power within the group by those with higher group rank.
- Sexual favors may be encouraged to display group loyalty or affiliation with group leadership.
- A common appearance that signifies group membership is strongly encouraged or required. There may be appearance differences that draw attention to group rank to reinforce the group’s hierarchy.
- Differences in appearance among group members are created to convey special achievements in upholding the group’s tenets or purpose.
Lack of Accountability:
- Group leaders are not held accountable for any mistakes or wrongdoings because of their special status within the group.
- Group leaders are often protected from negative evaluation by other group members through systematic secrecy, and are treated according to special rules that free the leaders from accountability.
- A closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure is used, permitting no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order. The group has a top-down, pyramid structure. The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.